Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Opression Olympics

Since we've discussed how we define things and how those definitions are used to create an illusion of control, let's talk about what happens due to outside forces.

When you are trained to fear the other or the different, it makes it easier maintain a kind of systemic control over groups of people. It's something that's often seen in times of war: representing the "enemy" as somehow less civilized or human. Think about how our current media, a fair percentage of the populace, and the government present the folks we're fighting. They're shown as inhumane, wanting to destroy "our way of life." They're nameless and faceless. They are vilified and demonized, even though our country's history ought to teach us something different. We're not as likely to see women and children on the news, unless there are American soldiers helping them and being kind. The technical term would be propaganda.

After wars are over, we often learn a great deal more about the "other." We learn that not all Germans were Nazis, and that life wasn't always easy on the other side of the front lines. We also learn that we, too, are capable of horrific things. Internment camps for Japanese Americans. The Atomic Bomb. Abu Ghraib. Deception about weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist. But these sorts of things often don't matter until after the fact, because at the time we're too busy being against the "other guys." And it's much easier to do that when we don't know as much about them or don't talk about them as people.

We give them names, so they're even less "normal" to us. Charlie. The Gerrys. Gooks. Sometimes it's not so much a name, as a grouping. Viet Cong. Al Qaeda. Insurgents. Rebels. Guerrillas. Anything to distance them. We draw political cartoons lampooning them. Sometimes we use marketing and advertising campaigns. If you've watched a decent quantity of Bugs Bunny or Looney Toons cartoons, you've seen another form of this. We are taught it is a simple game of us vs. them.

And the same is true domestically. A great deal of effort is spent keeping different groups fighting one another. Blacks vs. gays. Christians vs. Muslims. And the list, or more accurately the cycle, never ends. When the Federal Marriage Amendmentment was being introduced, its supporters lobbied black churches heavily, trying to stir up this animosity. "They are trying to compare their CHOICE with your experiences, and isn't that wrong?! They're not the same thing! Stand with us against them!" They went to other churches saying "They want to force you to accept and perform weddings that go against your beliefs!" It doesn't matter if it's true, the tension and division is the goal.

It's also done through economic means. "There's only so much money to go around, and we can only work on so many things at once." We're then taught to fight each other for that small piece of the pie. "Put in your budget requests so you can have programming available!" When a group does get something, the others are again set against them as opponents. "See what they got? You should have the same thing. You're just as good if not better than them." I learned a term for this at a conference a while back: the Oppression Olympics. As long as we're competing with one another, we're not working together and seeing the flaws in the system as a whole. And we're just getting little table scraps. LITTLE pieces of pie.

Next time: United We Stand - Why not work together?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Keeping it under control

Since we've now discussed how we define things, we need to look at what we do with those definitions. How do we then use them to interact with the world around us?

I'm not sure if it's human nature or just the current societal values, but we like to feel as though we're in control. And we're taught that knowledge and understanding leads to power. To control. If we figure out where something fits in the "scheme of things" we somehow have a better sense of the world around us. We break things down into its component parts in order to analyze it. (Again, for the geeks out there - deconstruction!)

We pick apart a movie or TV show, identifying themes, images, dialogue, etc so that we can pull some meaning out of it. We listen for specific words or lines in music that help us understand what a song is about, what its message is supposed to be. We do the same thing with people as well. We spend a lot of time sorting people into nice, neat little boxes for the purposes of identification. We sort people based on their religion, gender, politics, sexuality, race, age, socio-economic status, etc.

Think about it this way: Have you ever been talking about an actor or musician before, and someone is quick to point out "You know they're gay, right?" This is especially revealing when you were saying "I love this song," or "He's a good actor." Does their sexuality have anything to do with the quality of the music or film? We reduce people to one aspect of their identity, and often times don't give ourselves mental permission to let them out of one or two boxes.

This often leads to a lot of assumptions, too. Just because someone is gay, doesn't mean they can't also be a Republican. Or that they are automatically for gay marriage. Or that they're sexually active. Obviously, we're talking about stereotypes here. By defining people in a certain way, and using those definitions to deconstruct and categorize, we're limiting them. But it gives us a sense of control. Knowledge. Something upon which to base decisions.

An example from SafeZone: My friend Jackie looks like everybody's grandma. White hair, sweet disposition, wears her glasses on a chain. You just know she wants to bake you cookies. She also wears a gold cross around her neck. It's easy to put her into a mental box as a sweet little old retiree granny type. Putting her in that particular box might mean you wouldn't swear around her, or wouldn't bring up topics like being gay. She's got white hair and wears a cross, so that conversation couldn't possibly go well, right? Until you find out her son is gay and that she can swear like a sailor.

We like to believe we understand the world around us. Largely because if we know where to place everyone and everything else, it helps us figure out where to place ourselves. Where WE "fit in." And that's really where the sense of knowledge and control come from: knowing where we stand in relation to "other." This category of people feels this way about this issue, so I won't be around those people or discuss that issue with them. Wouldn't it be amazing if we talked it through instead, and learned that today a majority of Americans support employment protection for GLBT people? And perhaps we could change the minds of people about some things.

I've heard about so many people who start viewing a group differently when they find out someone they care about is a part of it. When you know someone who's black, it's harder to be scared or nervous when walking past an African American on the street. It's harder to oppose gay marriage or civil unions when one of your kids comes out. It's not because there's something different about the person or group. It's because we've broken down the little boxes into which we place them. After all, how many of you fit neatly into one or two categories?

Next time - The Oppression Olympics: How these categories are used to keep us from working towards unity.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Definition by negation

I've had several folks from my past come back into my life recently, and it prompted a conversation last night. It was a lengthy and weighty conversation about unity, humanity, fear, control, and perception. For the next few posts, I want to share with you some of the more important points. It really will lead/connect back to our usual gayness, I promise.

I learned something in Senior Seminar with the English Department. Language, words, and most symbols are all quite arbitrary. There is nothing inherent about a tree that says "the word for me is tree." Think about the myriad of languages that exist in the world today, and those that have "died out" in the past. They all have different words that represent "tree." We have chosen arbitrary words and arbitrary spellings in order to communicate with one another. The combination of letters t, r, e, and e doesn't have anything to do with what makes up a tree, where it grows, etc. They are connected only because of a mutual agreement and understanding that gives us a mental picture of a tree.

There are problems with this, of course. When I read or hear the word tree, I might envision a pine tree. Sharp needles, rough bark, tall, hearty, and green year round. Someone standing next to me, hearing or seeing the exact same word, might picture an aspen tree. Dormant over the winter months, smooth bark, broad leaves, and changing colors throughout the year. If we were both to describe the process for climbing the tree, uses for the wood, the smells, the textures, etc...we would probably be on two different pages, though the books would be related. It's why you learn about things like "specificity of language" in school. It helps to remove some of this confusion.

But how do create the image for tree in our heads? How do we know what a tree IS? We create a definition by what something is NOT. "Tree" is not "cat." It's not rock, or river. It's not a taco, and so on. Because "tree" can be more than one thing to us, we only what it means in relation to what it isn't. With words or images, this can be fairly simple.

We can only define things based on our own knowledge and experience. If you see the word "Hund," you cannot pull meaning from it unless you have something filed away in the rolodex of your brain that matches it. In this case, it's a word in German. If you've never learned German, you won't have much luck searching your mental databases. If you're lucky, a word will be similar to something else. (For the geeks in the room, these are called cognates.) Hund looks and sounds like the word "hound," and means dog. I can usually pull some meaning out of something I read in Dutch, because the written language is similar enough to German that I can make educated guesses about the meaning it's trying to convey. We create definitions through comparison.

The problem with this is that we do the same thing with people. We're quick to create distinctions about "other." Black vs. white. Republican vs. Democrat. Young vs. old. Jewish vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. We assign these labels to people quickly and easily, and use them to define that which is different from "us" or "me." We focus on these differences, even though there are far more similarities to be found. No matter the color of your skin, most people are born with the same number of toes, fingers, eyes, etc. We have different blood types, but they're made of the same thing. Yet we continually focus on what separates us or sets us apart. More often, we focus on what sets someone else apart. They are not like us in X way, so they are "different" or "not normal."

We then assign value to "normal." "Was the baby born normal?" "Why can't I have a normal job?" "Is that normal?" And normal is always defined in relation to ourselves. It doesn't matter if a majority of people in the world are not "white," that is considered "normal" to us in the US. Normalcy is like us, largely because we want to believe that we are like others, that we are normal and that we are operating in the natural state and ways.

Think about how you define things around you, and then how you define the people around you. How do you describe someone if they're not present. "You know Linus, the guy in the kilt." "Squid, the one with pink hair." "Big Gay Jim." Don't we use the differences as a basis for ruling out the things we're NOT describing? At what point do those differences become a definition? And do you want a part of you, one singular difference, to define you? Am I ONLY gay?

Coming next - Control: Why do we feel the need to categorize everything and everyone?

Monday, July 16, 2007

So many things...

...to write about, yet none of them grab my attention solidly. But since the Rev already moved me to the sinners list (the paperwork delay in the Black Vatican is getting SHORT!), I better post something. So here's a buffet of my thoughts, as it were:
  • This weekend's camping trip was a LOT of fun. There was some question as to whether or not we'd even go, as most folks couldn't make it. Mark almost called the trip off, but decided at the last minute to see how it went. Everything happens for a reason. He was reminded of the reason behind several of the "usual" things or "things we always do." Example: He didn't put up any lights in the middle of camp. Result: bugs followed us to the campfire. He put up one lone decoy light near main camp and the bugs went for it.
  • I'm anxiously watching to see what the US Senate does with "The Matthew Shepard Act," also known as "The Hate Crimes Bill," "Senate Bill 1105," or "The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act." The House passed it and I want the Senate to follow suit. Bush is threatening to veto it. Elizabeth Edwards called him out about this weekend at a campaign event for her hubby. It was also nice to see so many Presidential hopefuls listed as cosponsors of the measure.
  • Next weekend is Global Dance. I'm super excited, as Tiesto, BT, and Kostas are all playing. Several other folks as well, but those are the names I'm most excited about.
  • I am in full-on getting-ready-for-Fall-semester mode at work. This is about a month earlier than previous years, and I'm not liking that trend. Or going to work these days.
  • My summer wedding season starts this month. This year I only have 2 to attend, however. I'm doing music for Brendon and Tara in August. Tara mentioned wanting Marti to do it, but we'll see is she still feels that way sober...and what Brendon has to say. More on that later.
  • My friend Bob is in the hospital again. He's okay, but you know me. I'm a professional worrier. Think good thoughts, and wish him up some white blood cells. He's used his up for the time being.
  • I need to get more done on the house! I'm trying to relax and do fun things on weekends so that I don't lose what's left of my mind. Sadly, summer is FLYING by (spending almost every weekend in June out of town didn't help), and I'm POOPED when I come home from work during the week. Being a responsible adult is hard sometimes.
  • I got to see my friend Alicia last week, which was BEYOND awesome. We hadn't seen each other in 8 years. We started talking and catching up like nothing had happened. It was REALLY nice to relive old times, talk about old profs, and marvel at how old we've become. She also knew Matt, and it was nice to talk with someone who understands what happened to him in the same way I do. She knew him, was here when he was killed, spoke to people about it, still gets upset when someone says something without realizing, etc. I missed ya, babe, and am glad we've reconnected!
  • I need to get the oil changed in the car, and get the back door fixed. Again, with the responsible adult bullshit.

    I'm really grateful for close friends. Whether it was 5 of us hanging out by the lake this weekend, someone dropping off a present for the camping trip before I left, the all-time greatest puppy/house-sitter of all times coming through ONCE again, someone mowing your lawn and staying for 3 more hours just to chill, someone calling just to say hi, or any of the myriad other ways my friends (read: family) enrich my life. You guys rock. Though some people might think I say it too often, I'm of the opinion you can't say it enough. So thanks, all.
  • Tuesday, July 03, 2007

    The simple things

    I've been slogging through a stack of paperwork and "to do's" at work today. I've been thinking about what tomorrow means to me. From a patriotic stance, and also because tomorrow marks the 5 year anniversary of my mother's death. Her own Independence Day, as it were. Not the most thrilling or exciting days, to be sure. So there I sat, pondering what to do for my lunch hour. I could go outside and read, spin poi/flags, go out to eat, go home for lunch, do some last minute shopping...and then my MSN lit up at me.

    As it turns out, the Squid twisted my arm like the bully she is. ;) When she was off work, I met her at Flock Hall 2.0 for leftovers and refreshments. She had to stay home waiting for the FedEx man to deliver plane tickets for Tessa, and we both decided company was in order. It also means I got to see FH2.0 for the first time. Nice digs, kids! Gay approved, and I'm seriously jealous of the Rev's new lair. *waggles eyebrows* Maybe, if we get him drunk enough, he'll give me a tour...

    So here I sit, back at work. And the meaning of tomorrow isn't as daunting. I already have several offers for plans, and know I'll find a way to have some fun and get into trouble. The rest of it will fall into place, and I'll learn whatever lessons present themselves. At some point, I'll feel sad. Mostly, I'll feel happy. That's what lunch with Squid reminded today. Surround yourself with good people, fill yourself with good intention, and enjoy the simple things that unfold.

    Even some leftover noodles, bottled pasta sauce, and leftover crab cakes (I am SO glad Tessa is back!) can turn into the most wonderful afternoon diversion. Just catching up with someone, even when you see them often, can be relaxing. And every now and then, take a moment to stop and enjoy things at a slower pace. No music, no tv. Stay in. Sit for a moment. Let it all soak in.

    Thanks, Squid. And Universe.